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Tessaku

Setsuko Asano - Part 3

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So how did your father get this job right after camp?

He was a journalist like I said, and very good in writing Chinese characters. He was befriended by a Chinese man who was in the shrimp business. And he told him, “Come here to New Orleans.” So we went, he really befriended us. I say this really with a sense of — he was so nice to us that even when I left there because my father passed, he found out why I was going back to Los Angeles, he said, ‘I have property here. We could bury him here in Louisiana.’ He was willing to let me bury him there. That's how nice he was to us.  I thought that was sort of a nice gesture. He didn't have to say that. 

Do you remember his name? 

Setsuko: C.D. Hoy. He's no longer alive, of course. He had two sons and they were very kind to us, too. They must be very old by now.

Sandy: But she went to college in Louisiana. Loyola University.   

And what did you study?

Microbiology. 

So were you working in New Orleans?

Yes. The state health department. 

What did you do?

As a microbiologist. I worked with specimens, identified organisms. And then my father passed. So I came back to L.A. with my mother and I worked in Lynwood, California. And that's why I worked at St. Francis Hospital for 30 years.

Where did you meet your husband? 

Church [laughs].

What kind of Church?

Methodist.  

What was his camp experience? 

Koichi Asano in Europe during his service in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Courtesy of the Masao Sakagami Collection

Well, he was in the service. He was in 442. His family went to Colorado, Amache camp whereas I went to Arkansas.

And he survived the war. Did he see combat?

It was in Italy. He was in combat with Charlie Company. I remember his “C” company. 

And what was his first name?

Koichi. They’d call him “Koy” for a nickname.

So he was lucky. 

Sandy: He was very lucky. I think he’d always tell us about his friends who got their arm shot off. 

You know, one of the things I still remember to this day is that the bullet came aiming for him and it hit his heel of his boot. So the heel was shot off, and he thought that was a sign. So he says, “I have to thank God for that.” He became a diehard Christian after that. He went to church, I mean, we can't do anything on Sundays. I had to go to church. 

Sandy: He taught the youth groups.

He helped the young boys at night because they, didn't have anything, didn’t have anywhere to go. He looked after the young boys. He helped them a lot. 

Did you yourself grow up Buddhist?

Originally, I was Buddhist. Nichiren Beikoku in Boyle Heights.

And so then you started going to Methodist churches after you met your husband? 

My friends introduced me to the Christian church. 

Is your husband still alive?

Setsuko: No.

Sandy: He passed in 1995. He wasn’t quite 80 yet.

And your family moved to New Orleans after and you grew up in the south?

That’s right. I’m a Southern gal.

I wonder if it would have been interesting, though, how they felt about, you know, Japan and even losing the war, which was their home originally. 

Well, my family, my parents became pro-America immediately. Their whole psyche was completely turned around. So I said, well, they are really American. 

Did they ever get their citizenship?

Both of them did. 1953. Because I remember I had to go to class with them. They went to class to learn.

So your resettlement experience was different because you were in New Orleans. When did your mother pass? 

In her 90s. So her history is interesting. She was only 18 and was in The Manchurian War. Yeah, I think it’s that far back. She was an army nurse. She says most of those soldiers when they were in the hospital, they were having things like appendicitis. Not even shot with a bullet. And here I thought, okay. Gunshot wounds. No, they came in the hospital with symptoms of appendicitis. Things like that. And she took care of them. She was only 18. I couldn't get over that, that she was there taking care of the soldiers. You know, the Japanese war, they were short of personnel. They just wanted to put anyone who could tie a bandage in there.

She was really a workaholic. She became a very good midwife. I remember that because she used to drive in her Model-T Ford up the hills in San Diego delivering babies. And the people, you know, were farmers and they couldn't pay. So they would pay with produce. I still remember that. And I would be sitting in the backseat. Taking me [for] a midnight driving in that car for delivery. Mostly at night they had babies [laughs].

Sandy: And nobody to watch you? So she just put you in the back seat?

Setsuko: I was in the back seat all the time, because she could drive. I mean she was a really strong woman.

Every night. Always delivering baby. 

Sandy: Every night?

Setsuko: Practically. She had made a lot of house calls. She was strong. And my father, this was a silly story, but he's afraid of the night and dark. And he had to go to the outhouse all the time and she would have to take him.

Sandy: Isn’t that funny? Because it’s the reverse. That’s why she was strong. 

Setsuko: He depended on her for everything. He was good with the writing but —

She was the anchor. 

I think she was the one to keep the family together. I remember she’d be up all night in those days sewing handkerchiefs. Rolling handkerchiefs, dozens. And I remember ‘cause when I got older I had to take it to Pasadena where they collected these hand-rolled handkerchiefs that she’d be making. She'd be up all night sewing by hand. I'd have to count them in dozens and pile them up and take it to Pasadena. I remember that part. They suffered and worked hard. 

Was she still alive when the redress happened? 

Setsuko: I can't recall. She died when she was ninety something. 

Sandy: I think she died before ‘88.

When you received it, what was your reaction to it? You know, getting the apology and the money. 

Well, I was glad that they admitted or took a responsibility to that, although to me it was just a token. But at least they owned up to it. That was their way.

And sometimes there’s no other way to show it. 

You know, it's impossible. I think I learned a lot in my history. Just experience having lived in the South. You know, I had a lot of experiences. You make the best of what you have.

What are some of those lessons? Are things you want people to remember about the experience of the war and what the Japanese Americans had to go through?

Well, it's all what you look like, appearance. They didn't judge you by education or what, you know, it's how you look. And of course, I was practically embedded in it in the South. That’s where they really had discrimination, still to this day all. So I lived it.

I'm curious, if you had not lived in the South and seen that, what do you think would have changed in your ideas about race in America? Why was that so impactful for you? 

Well, the difference I found in California, for example. People are very self-centered. They're all for themselves getting ahead, beating the person. Whereas in the South, you still have that same kind of French culture where you help each other. The only thing that disturbs me is there's definitely discrimination there between the blacks and the whites. I just happen to be fortunate to be on the white side. But they're definitely there. I think you have to live in the South to really get it and feel it. I'm glad for that opportunity. You know, it's the way you look. You can’t help that. That’s the way you’re born and you have to learn to live with it.

Or we have to learn to treat each other better. 

Exactly.

And just quickly, when you were at Saint Francis, what did you do there? 

Setsuko: I was a microbiologist. I worked there for 30 years, I was very comfortable there.

Sandy: She became Director of the Laboratory.

Setsuko: You know, what's the funniest thing? In the South you see a lot of infectious diseases.  And I thought, okay, I'm going to California. There’s not going to be anything there. And by golly, I was shocked. It was lots. And it's because we're so close to Mexico. I didn't realize it until you get here. I said, ‘Why is it that I'm still seeing these organisms?

And you being in the sciences, it sounds like you were very ahead of your time as well. I mean, being a woman scientist at that time? Because your peers were all men, right?

No, not necessarily. Well, there were a few men. You know, there were a lot of women, too. 

I thought maybe you would have been the only one. 

I’m old but I’m not that old! [laughs

And then what about your husband, what did he do for work?

Setsuko: He was in the automotive business. He worked for a parts store ,counterman selling parts. We even decided to go into business and it lasted six years. But I thought, no way am I going to lose my job. So I stayed and worked and just went to the store after work, five o'clock; three to five on Saturdays, and he refused to open on Sundays. And I said, Sundays is where you make it. And he refused because he had to go to church.

Sandy: Is that why?

Setsuko: Yes!

Oh, he was dedicated. 

He was.

* This article was originally published on Tessaku on March 8, 2020.

© 2020 Emiko Tsuchida

new orleans Rohwer concentration camp World War II

About this series

Tessaku was the name of a short-lived magazine published at the Tule Lake concentration camp during World War II. It also means “barbed wire.” This series brings to light stories of the Japanese American internment, illuminating those that haven’t been told with intimate and honest conversation. Tessaku brings the consequences of racial hysteria to the foreground, as we enter into a cultural and political era where lessons of the past must be remembered.